The chants of the two children of Jennifer Epps-Addison symbolized the spirit at the 129th Anniversary Commemoration of the Bay View Tragedy on May 3. “Get it up, get down, Milwaukee is a union town,” sang the two youngsters to the thrill of more than 300 persons attending the annual event held on Milwaukee’s lakefront in the Bay View neighborhood.

Larger-than-life size puppet of 1886 labor leader "speaks" at annual Bay View Tragedy event.

Larger-than-life size puppet of 1886 labor leader “speaks” at annual Bay View Tragedy event.

Epps-Addison, executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now, was principal speaker, and she introduced her children to open her remarks. The children composed their own songs, always on a union theme, she said.

The event has become a tradition, having now been conducted annually for 29 years under the sponsorship of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. It recalls the May 5, 1886 killing of seven persons who were gunned down by the State Militia during a march of workers for the eight-hour-day, making it the state’s bloodiest incident involving workers.

Turning to the 2015 incidents in Baltimore arising out of the death of Freddie Grey in a police van, Epps-Addison said they were not a “riot,” as they have been depicted, but an “uprising.” She added that when people seem more concerned about the damage done to a CVS store than the death of a black man in police custody, “there’s an illness that needs to be cured in this country.”

“Those people had been marching in the streets for more than 5 days before the news cameras showed up, and the (Deontre) Hamilton family in Milwaukee has been marching for more than a year and those cameras are nowhere to be found,” she said.

The children of Jennifer Epps-Addison, key speaker, opened her speech with a ditty

The children of Jennifer Epps-Addison, key speaker, opened her speech with a ditty

The incident in Baltimore should be a lesson, Epps-Addison said, that direct action may be needed to bring justice. “We have collective power when we come together and fight for the values that we all believe in,” she said.

Throughout the state, Epps-Addison said, working families are “facing the same struggle, the struggle to support our families and facing the same struggle to provide a high quality education – a public education – to all of our children.”

Epps-Addison, who has been a leader in many of the demonstrations and rallies among low-income workers, cited other issues facing Wisconsinites under Gov. Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature, including cuts to the longterm care program making it difficult for elderly persons to remain in their homes along with rising health care costs due to the state’s refusal to accept U.S. support for Medicaid expansion money. Such actions mean families are “surviving under these various forms of state violence.”

She urged that citizens withhold their support of any and all politicians until they “show up for your issues” and commit to supporting programs that will restore economic and social justice. No politician who doesn’t support the demand for a $15 minimum wage should ask for the vote of working people, she added. Nor, she added, should any county board member who votes to privatize jobs seek the votes of workers.

“What builds power is workers, working together,” she said in urging workers and others to continue their efforts.

The rousing words of Epps-Addison followed the dramatic re-enactment of the 1886 Tragedy staged by the Milwaukee Public Theatre and the Milwaukee Puppet and Mask Theatre. The 15-minute staging included professional actors reading the lines of labor (as represented by the larger-than-life-sized puppet of Paul Grottkau) and the business and government establishment (represented by a puppet of Gov. Jeremiah P. Rusk). Volunteers acted as marchers.

A moment of silence ended the re-enactment, with Anita Zeidler, daughter of late Mayor Frank P. Zeidler, laying a wreath at the foot of the historical marker site.

In all but one of the previous Bay View Tragedy events, Folksinger and retired Teamster Larry Penn sang his song written for the occasion, “Ghosts of Bay View.” He was not present this year, having died last October at age 87. Folksinger and Teachers Union Member Craig Siemsen took Larry’s role to sing “Ghosts” as well as a medley of Penn’s songs in a tribute.

The event is planned each year by a committee of labor union activists, neighborhood residents and others under the sponsorship of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. Co-sponsors include the Bay View Historical Society, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council. — Ken Germanson, May 6, 2015.

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